What frightens Rifle citizens and businesses more: A doubling of water rate hikes to help pay for a new water treatment plant, or a "catastrophic" failure of the now more than 30-year-old plant if a new one isn't built?
That was a key part of the debate at Monday night's council meeting, when an ordinance to allow the city a year to enter into a loan agreement with the Colorado Water Resources and Power Authority was considered on final approval.
Councilwoman Jennifer Sanborn, one of two council members to vote in the minority when the issue has arisen, criticized Mayor Jay Miller for what she felt was a "gross exaggeration" about a possible plant failure leaving the city without water for perhaps months.
"I think it's wrong for an elected official to try to instill fear in people when it's not warranted," Sanborn said. "I just don't think it's morally right."
Miller had earlier said he did not want to see the city step back and consider other plant alternatives, as Sanborn suggested.
"We've been diddling around with this for the last five years and I feel if we push this back and back, we're going to have businesses leave town, then we will have a catastrophic failure of the city," Miller said. "I'm not willing to take that chance."
Miller added that if a core part of the current plant on Graham Mesa fails, it would take months to have a replacement part manufactured. The plant was designed to use a treatment process that is outdated and replacement parts are no longer manufactured on a regular basis.
"I think people will move out and it will be catastrophic," Miller responded, turning sideways to look at Sanborn at the council table. "I have my opinion and you have yours. I really hope we don't have a failure for at least the next five years, but if we keep pushing this decision away, that time gets closer and closer."
He added that as an elected official, he has a duty to ensure city residents are supplied with high quality, safe drinking water.
"I think you're listening to a very small population" of residents who want the city to wait, Miller added.
Sanborn noted the city did receive a petition, signed by a third of the city's residents, seeking a vote on the water plant question and loan. That petition was ruled invalid, partly due to a lack of enough signatures of registered city voters.
"Most people tell me they can't afford these rate hikes," Sanborn added. "I absolutely object to an exaggerated opinion designed to install fear in our residents."
Councilman Jonathan Rice pointed out Miller and Sanborn's positions related to whether the fear of a plant failure was greater than a fear of sharply higher water rates to pay for the new plant.
"I think it's our job to decide which fear most people lean toward," Rice added.
With that, Rice made a motion to approve an ordinance extending the time the city has to close on the loan to a year. A previous ordinance related to the loan had a 60-day expiration period, which was reached before the end of June.
The motion passed 4-2, with Sanborn and Councilman Randy Winkler opposed, as they have in several previous votes on the issue. Councilman Keith Lambert was absent from the meeting.
City Attorney Jim Neu later noted council's action meant city staff will move forward to close on the loan, but pointed out the city does not have to spend the entire $25.5 million on a new plant.
City Manager John Hier said he will schedule a work session with city council in the near future, to review various funding options for the new plant in an attempt to lessen the burden on rate payers.
In his closing comments at the end of the meeting, Miller said his earlier statements were not intended to instill fear in residents, but felt the issue had to be discussed among councilmembers. He also asked the Citizen Telegram to not portray his comments in that light.
"We need to continue to be thinking outside the box and we're working hard to do that," Miller said.
City officials have said the existing Graham Mesa plant is aging, undersized to serve projected population growth and unable to meet possible tougher federal water quality standards in the future.
Under the water rate structure approved earlier this year by council to help repay the loan and cover operating costs of the new plant, the base rate charged to city water users would nearly double. A sales tax hike to help reduce the burden on rate payers is likely to be on the November general election ballot.